Shining a Light on Jeff Koons

Students interview America's most popular contemporary artist

Surrounded by some of the most iconic and glistening contemporary sculptures of all time, a group of students interviewed American artist Jeff Koons.

Polimoda is the educational partner of the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition Jeff Koons. Shine. Before the official opening on October 2nd, 2021, we asked a group of students to come up with questions to ask American contemporary artist Jeff Koons.

Master student Julian interviewing Jeff Koons
Master student Julian interviewing Jeff Koons

Five thought-provoking questions were chosen and the selected group of students prepared for the interview with the Palazzo Strozzi Communications team, carefully reviewing and studying what they would say before sitting down with Jeff Koons to talk about everything and everyone that inspires him. 

The outcome is a 20-minute video featuring Jeff Koons, Polimoda students and the artist's most celebrated works. 

Shining a Light on Jeff Koons

Sitting in front of Balloon Venus Lespugue (Red), Jeff Koons’ reflection bounced off the glossy red surface as he freeheartedly answered the curious questions Polimoda students Alisa Rebecca Watson (Master in Fashion Brand Management), Rano Karimova (Undergraduate in Business of Fashion), Autumn Caroline Mowery (Master in Fashion Brand Management), Ario Mezzolani (Master in Fashion Critique and Curation), Ana Maria Barth Teixeira (Master in Fashion Trend Forecasting) and Julian Restrepo Espinal (Master in Fashion Trend Forecasting) asked about his remarkable career.

"When I was a young artist, actually my first day of art school, I had an experience where I went to the Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore, Maryland in the US. I realized when I went to the museum that I knew nothing about art," explains Koon. "I didn't know different artists. I didn't know Cézanne. I didn't know Braque, I didn't know the history. I went back to my art school, and I was given an art history lesson that day and it transformed my life."

Master student Alisa observing one of Jeff Koons' works
Master student Alisa observing one of Jeff Koons' works

"This lesson spoke about a Manet painting, and in the Manet painting, it was called Olympia," continues Koons. "The professor spoke about how the black cat over in the right corner had meaning in 19th century France. The position of Olympia related to Goya's work, and all of a sudden, I realized that it was a vehicle that so effortlessly was going to connect me to philosophy and psychology, theology, physics, aesthetics, really all the things in this exhibition of Shine that you can see taking place all the different dialogues.

From that moment, I wake up excited every day about the possibility of transcending through art. It is never weakened. It's never in any way been a less intense experience than it was at first."

Koons is an open book throughout the interview, talking about discovery and transcendence, going into detail about how he approaches art and what he loves most about his work.

Undergraduate student Rano observing Jeff Koons' work before the official opening
Undergraduate student Rano observing Jeff Koons' work before the official opening

"I don't think that money is what's of interest in art. I don't look at an artwork and think about money. I look at an artwork and I think about the ability that it has to inform me about life experience, and hopefully, it can make me more courageous that I can be more open to life and accept being in the moment and to transcend."

"I wake up excited every day about the possibility of transcending through art"

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Polimoda students
Jiyong Chen, Sofia Mazza, Ginevra Mellaro, Mariadina Paschetta, Caterina Meola, Beatrice Petazzoni, Kara Luhtanen, Martina Roversi, Lucia Iemma, Matilde Zecchini and Chiara Pacini from Fashion Art Direction and Fashion Communications also worked as a team on an educational project for Palazzo Strozzi's digital channels, conceptualizing and creating an Instagram video campaign dedicated to Jeff Koons’ most celebrated works featured in the exhibition.

Jeff Koons talking to one of our students before the opening of his exhibition
Jeff Koons talking to one of our students before the opening of his exhibition

"Once we learn how to trust in ourselves, and we can love ourselves, then we can go outward into the world. When you go out into the world, then you can connect with the abundance of everything, absolutely, everything's there."

Video Transcript

Jeff Koons: I wake up excited every day, about the possibility of transcending through art.

Alisa Rebecca Watson: Expansion of your own capacity, through learning and experimentation has been involved in much of the development of your work. Through these structuring experiences, through the creation journey, how has this impacted who you've become thus far?

Jeff: I continue to change and evolve. When I was a young artist, actually my first day of art school, I had an experience where I went to the Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore, Maryland in the US. I realized when I went to the museum that I knew nothing about art. I didn't know different artists. I didn't know Cézanne. I didn't know Braque, I didn't know the history. I went back to my art school, and I was given an art history lesson that day and it transformed my life.

This lesson spoke about a Manet painting, and in the Manet painting, it was called Olympia. The professor spoke about how the black cat over in the right corner had meaning in 19th century France. The position of Olympia related to Goya's work, and all of a sudden, I realized that it was a vehicle that so effortlessly was going to connect me to philosophy and psychology, theology, physics, aesthetics, really all the things in this exhibition of Shine that you can see taking place all the different dialogues.

From that moment, I wake up excited every day about the possibility of transcending through art. It is never weakened. It's never in any way been a less intense experience than it was at first.

Rano Karimova: We all know how consumerism has inevitably influenced contemporary art, so would you then say that contemporary art could be considered a consumer good too today?

Jeff: Rano, I think that over history, the life, everyday life, of course, is what permeates and becomes the material of what we have to talk about, what we respond to. I believe that art is a vehicle that helps us show a history of what it was like to be human at this time with our understanding of the world, and so there's always some sense of commerce to a certain degree involved with art today and the world that we live, not only how artists support themselves.

They don't have the patron that they had in the past where they could be independent of market system. I don't believe that economics is really the driving force or the driving interests of artists. I started off just wanting to participate in the dialogue of art and wanting to be part of a larger group of people, to be in discourse with people like Manet, or Dalí, my friends, just everybody. The excitement, the vitality, the life energy to be involved in this dialogue of what art can be. The idea of art has grown and there's so many more people talking about art. I think a lot of people are intimidated by art.

They think that they have to know more about it. They have to come to the art conversation pre-prepared with information. Of course, you never have to bring anything other than yourself. Everybody is perfect in their own history. Art is always about the essence of your own potential and this moment forward, but because of that insecurity, I think people speak about peripheral things like money, economics, because they'll see how art is in some ways replacing some other institutions or some other areas where people have had involvement in the past.

I don't think that money is what's of interest in art. I don't look at an artwork and think about money. I look at an artwork and I think about the ability that it has to inform me about life experience, and hopefully, it can make me more courageous that I can be more open to life and accept being in the moment and to transcend.

Autumn Caroline Mowery: Society has become increasingly more intoxicated with our own identity. How has the perception of your audience shifted to reflect this societal shift?

Jeff: There has been a change and I think that technology, different medias that have become very accessible to people, have affected the way they view the world, the way they capture life experience. The way people view art, they interact with art has changed. I think people will go to exhibitions and they're trying to capture exhibitions in their phones instead of just observing the artwork itself and letting it be absorbed.

In many ways, it's amazing how technology and society we have so much more information. We can have almost everything known to humankind at our fingertips at one moment. We can investigate everything, but at the same time, people do not open themselves up to life experience and we're getting further and further away from that. In the past, you can imagine in the time of like Titian. Titian would make a painting like Pastoral Concert.

It's really about being in nature and being open and interacting with people, and feeling the vitality of life, of desire, the senses, and what it means to be a human being in this world, in this landscape. We're very far from that right now. I think that it's very, very healthy that we can try to stay connected to our past, stay connected to really what it means to our senses. To stay involved with our senses, our biological memory, and to try to open ourselves up to the world. When you speak about opening oneself up to world, I think of a clamshell.

A clamshell is closed, but if we can open ourselves up to experience it's visceral. A lot comes at us, and there can be a sense of danger that happens there. There's also great pleasure, but people are fearful of that and we like to shrug it off. "Oh, no, I'm very open," but actually we're very closed, it's really the opposite. Technology has kept us more and more away from interacting with people. The greatest reward comes from the confidence to open oneself up to interact with other people.

Ario Mezzolani: Your works give us wide perspective of our time joining together different sources of references often hidden under innocent layer of playfulness. Why are you so interested in seducing the users of your works by putting them in front of their most intimate contradictions?

Jeff: When I think about art and the power that it has really to transform our lives and make us vaster human beings, I think back to my youth and when I was younger and how there was no judgment. As children, we're very, very open to experience. We can love the color blue for blue, the sky for the sky. We're open to everything, but eventually, we start making judgments. Assertive judgments really end up segregating you from the world.

They segregate things, "Oh, I don't like that. This isn't so good," instead of practicing judgment. If we practice acceptance, it's the opposite. We bring everything in and everything is perfect in its own being and when you have everything there everything can be incorporated. It can be brought into the dialogue of what you're doing and I really believe that acceptance is how we walk out of Plato's cave.

Are we able to reach a higher level of consciousness? In our daily lives, we come across these situations where we deal with polarities. Polarities are in nature, it's kind of the heart of battles. There has to be an acceptance of the polarities, the polarities are perfect also in their own being but complete acceptance. I think following one's interests is really what takes us to that connecting metaphysical vocabulary of human history.

Ana Maria Barth Teixeira: In your interviews, you often speak about the importance of art as a vehicle for the expansion of the self. More specifically, pop art, fashion and culture have always been targets of judgments about superficiality and the commodification of desires. Yet, in 2021 why it's still necessary to explain that a shiny sculpture, a piece of clothing, and the act of dressing can function as tools for expressing your very own ethos. Do you think people are looking inwards and by doing so not exploring their sensibilities?

Jeff: Culture sometimes can be very judgmental. There can be a lot of polarities that are taking place in culture and there's a lot of confusion. I think the idea of desire is fantastic. I look at my favorite artists, I look at artists like Titian, or Giorgione, people that have really dealt with desire show just how beautiful it is. Our bodies, our biology is based in desire. The idea of procreation and everything about life so to feel segregated from desire never seems to make sense to me.

If we think about the things that Shine, this exhibition called Shine. Shine is really about the concept of facing the fight. Just as a plant will turn and put its energy towards the sun for photosynthesis to get that type of energy, biology functions the same way. The idea of Shine. Shine is a symbol of transcendence. It has been throughout history, you can look at all different theologies.

The idea of people radiating, wanting to be connected to the power of light is a consistent thing. If I hear about people being attracted to a shiny object. A shiny object is fantastic because again, it's a symbol of transcendence. It's like the water, the glistening of light across the water, it's a form of abstraction. I think, as an individual, we have to learn how to trust in ourselves. Once we learn how to trust in ourselves, and we can love ourselves, then we can go outward into the world. When you go out into the world, then you can connect with the abundance of everything, absolutely, everything's there.

That surface of the object, that aspect of shine, to me is really a reference of everything. The surface itself, what's on the inside, that identity of self-love can also be there on the inside but the idea of reflecting the environment is showing to be in tune with people, to be aware of the environment, to interact with the environment. That's really life experience. I love the philosopher John Dewey. John Dewey will say, "What life is, is an organism having an interaction with the world, and the world having an effect on the organism but then it's also the organism will have an effect on the world." That's true communication. That's life experience.

Julian Restrepo Espinal: What do you think is the next step for contemporary art given that in today's society the definition has become so wide and inclusive, that sometimes its meaning it's blurred and lost in translation?

Jeff: It's a great time, first of all, to be a contemporary artist. A new generation of artists also are coming up there. Now, you have the opportunity to really create and find meaning of what art can be how it can function in society. It's wonderful that people take the responsibility to let art participate and to be functioning as broadly and as powerfully as possible. I think that people empathy, to be able to communicate to have really the purest form of communication with each other.

This is really the platform that art creates. It's about communication. When you make something, you make it, you're communicating with yourself and you go through this process of self discovery but eventually, you get as much pleasure showing it to somebody else as you do for yourself and the more you make, the more you feel that way. That opportunity of having true communication of what is this life experience about? How can not only, I, the person who creates something but you the person viewing something, how can we together, how can we share this experience, learn from each other, and have a stronger, more relevant understanding of what our potential is.

I think that's always at the basis of art, and I think that it has been in the past and I think it will be in the future. When I say in the past, I mean, people in prehistoric times that would've made something like the Lespugue Venus, they're contemplating, what does it mean to be in this situation that we're in and how can we protect ourselves? How can we learn more? It's about this moment and how we can have a greater understanding of what our position in this moment and to make more of it.